Last week I wrote about the joys of multilingualism and it would be remiss of me to not follow that up with some of the pitfalls of attempted bilingualism. Having lived in Spain since 2014, I feel true empathy for Manuel in Falty Towers. In fact, at times, I am Manuel. Learning another language opens one up to making all sorts of unfortunate mistakes. I have two particular favourites that I’ve heard from other people.
One is about a young woman from New Zealand who was the youngest and only female crew member of a yacht that was about to set sail across the Pacific from Peru. The young woman was given the task of provisioning the boat with enough beer for a crew of six or seven, for up to two months at sea. With her pockets bulging with cash, she went to the nearest supermarket and bought tray upon tray of cans of beer with a name that seemed, to her eyes, quite wild. She duly bought the beer, brought it back to the yacht and stowed it, in preparation for setting sail. It was only with 60 miles of ocean separating the yacht from the Peruvian coast, when the first cans of beer were cracked open, was it realized that she had bought sin-alcohol, or, in English, alcohol-free, beer. While the sailing may have been improved, the onboard atmosphere was not.
My other favourite story was told to me by a Welshman who lives on the opposite side of Andalucia. It’s very easy to mix up similar sounding words with dire consequences. This guy met his next-door neighbor one day and, instead of telling her he had been to visit her cuño (brother-in-law), he told her he’d been to visit her coño (pussy). Lucky for him, his neighbor has a good sense of humour, but he’s never lived it down and is reminded of it every time there is a neighbourhood get-together.
I’m not above making gaffes myself. I once went to a birthday party and mixed up the words regalo and regla. I arrived to the 3-year old’s birthday party with Lily and Katie, only to discover we’d left the present aboard Carina. As I sprinted down the hill I turned to the child’s mother and the three or four women she was chatting to. Instead of saying ‘I forgot the present’, I told them all ‘I forgot my period’.
My most recent major gaffe was one of misunderstanding and I sincerely hope the person I was talking to didn’t catch my gaffe. It happened about three months ago. We’d been having ongoing problems with our boiler. I’d phone the landlady, she’d phone her insurance company and they’d send a boiler repairman out. He’d fix the problem only for the boiler to stop working a few days later. This happened three or four times. During all of this, my landlady communicated with me via my next-door neighbor, who lives with her 97-year old mother and who happens to be my landlady’s cousin. It’s generally easier to communicate face-to-face in a second language than over the phone.
That morning we had the latest boiler breakdown and I phoned the landlady. I taught English that afternoon and came home, frazzled. My leg ached and I’d just had an awful hour with a bunch of 3-year olds. Lola kept sneezing out long viscous streams of disgusting snot that I had to wipe up. Irene asked to go to the toilet and when she didn’t return after 10 minutes I went to investigate. She’d done a poo but didn’t know how to wipe her bottom, so I had to do it for her. While I was busy wiping her arse all hell broke loose in the classroom. I didn’t sign up for this when I agreed to teach English to these kids.
When I arrived home, I went straight to the bedroom to change my clothes, as I always do at the end of the day. When I was half-dressed, I heard an insistent knock at the door. I hopped to the door (on my bad leg), half in-half out of my clothes. My friends and their giant puppy were standing at the door. I invited them in and said I just needed a minute to get dressed. They said they’d wait outside, on account of the dog. So, I returned to getting dressed. A moment later, there was another insistent knock on the door. ‘What do they want now?’ I wondered and opened the door again. My friends were still standing there, but they hadn’t knocked. Instead, it was a woman I recognized as someone who regularly visits my neighbor and her 97-year old mother. You’ll have to understand, I was quite wound up by now and probably in need of a strong cup of tea, so I didn’t quite take in everything the woman was saying to me. I caught the words ‘pain’, ‘doctor’, ‘4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon’. I put 2 and 2 together and came up with, erm, about three hundred and five.
With my friends and their giant puppy looking on, I put my hand on the woman’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m very sorry’. She looked at me strangely.
‘Is she in hospital or at home?’ I asked.
‘At home’, the woman said, and seemed very confused.
‘I’ll definitely be there tomorrow’, I said. ‘4 o’clock, right?’
Why was she looking at me so strangely?
‘Was she in much pain?’ I asked. ‘How’s Manoli?’ (for that is the name of my next-door neighbor).
By now the woman was looking at me so strangely, that I knew I had very seriously got the wrong end of the stick.
‘I’m sorry’, I said. ‘Can you explain all this to me again. I don’t understand’.
The woman then slowly and carefully explained that Manoli had a toothache and was in pain and didn’t want to leave the house. And she had asked this woman to convey to me that the boiler repairman would come at 4 o’clock the next afternoon.
Rather sheepishly, I thanked the woman for conveying the news. I sincerely hoped she didn’t catch my gaffe and couldn’t see the machinations of my brain as I considered what I would wear to the funeral at 4 o’clock the next day and what ingredients I had in the house to make a cake to bring around to the wake.
I really need to improve my Spanish.